The future of news and why “digital first” matters

Covering the news used to be fairly simple. Reporters wrote things down and then sent them to editors, who then sent them to the printer to be published in the newspaper. But things are a lot more complicated now: News has become an ongoing process rather than a finished product, and it’s composed of many different pieces, including blogs and video and Twitter and so on. In a recent post at the 10,000 Words blog, Lauren Rabaino of the Seattle Times does a good job of looking at how confusing this can be for newspapers and other media entities. More than anything else, it reinforces the need to rethink how the news gets written and distributed.

As Rabaino notes in her post, the way that news stories emerge now — whether it’s a story about the Occupy Wall Street protests or an earthquake in Japan, or even a more local news piece — is different now because the germ of a story can come from anywhere: from Twitter, from a photo or a video posted to YouTube, or from a blog. As blogging pioneer Dave Winer has pointed out, the “sources can now go direct,” in the sense that anyone who is at the center of a news event has publishing tools available to them to get their own story out. This “democracy of distribution” (as Om has called it) created by Twitter and other tools changes the dynamic dramatically.

The news is now a process, not an artifact

So as author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis says, news is a process now. A story may begin with a simple tweet or retweet of a fact, and then evolve into a traditional story; or it may begin as a tweet and turn into a blog post but never become a story in the print edition. In many cases, while the reporter working on that blog post or story is putting it together, the nature of the news will change. For example, when readers contribute their knowledge on Twitter or via comments on the blog post (New York Times (s nyt) media writer and former blogger Brian Stelter, among others, does a great job of incorporating responses from Twitter into the coverage of whatever news event he is writing about).

But as Rabaino notes in her post, this can be confusing for newspapers, which are used to predictable print-based publishing schedules and a process of news flow developed long before the web even existed. The questions that come up in many newsrooms, she says, include:

  • Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
  • When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story?
  • When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post?
  • When do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story?
  • How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users?

Those questions give you just some idea of how much confusion there is in the average newspaper newsroom when it comes to merging print and digital — not in a theoretical sense, but in a practical, every-day reporting sense. When it comes to making good use of the web for covering a breaking story, Rabaino mentions the BBC’s live-blogging-style news story, which it used for the shooting attacks in Norway (of course, the BBC doesn’t have to worry about coming up with a print version). The New York Times does something very similar with its Lede news blog when there is a breaking story, both aggregating links and trying to pull together facts and responses.

Digital first is about a change in mindset

But do those updates make it into the newspaper’s print version? That depends on the paper. In digital form, that kind of thing is easier, whether it’s on the web or through apps like the New York Times iPad app, which is updated in some cases when a story is dramatically altered, and includes a time stamp. Some sites go further: SB Nation has something it calls a “story stream,” which allows readers to see all the previous stories on a particular topic in chronological order. And some bloggers such as Salon founder Scott Rosenberg have advocated a “versioning” approach, where readers can click and see the previous versions of a blog post or story as changes were made.

John Paton, the new head of the Media News Group newspaper chain, and a leading advocate of a “digital first” approach to publishing, has said he believes newspapers need to fundamentally shift the way they think about their businesses if they are to survive, and including making the web come first instead of last in the production process. Many newspapers continue to focus their energy on the print version, then post things to the web, which results in stories without links, and static versions of the news that don’t evolve as the story changes and new information emerges.

In a memo to her staff about a reorganization (and layoffs) at the paper, Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant put it well when she said the redesign of the newsroom (including a new content-management or publishing system) was aimed at making it easier for reporters to act like bloggers. As she put it:

What the “digital first” mantra means, in practical application, is putting the power of online publishing in all of our hands, extending the ease of blogging to all of our content.

Newspapers as a distribution system just aren’t equipped to handle news as a process; printing a single version of a news event with no links and no updates (until at least the following day) fundamentally doesn’t make sense in today’s news environment. Looking at the news from a blogger’s point of view — as an amalgamation of Twitter and Storify and video and photos, with comments and updates and links — makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t translate well into a print-focused culture. When it gets right down to it, that’s what Paton’s message is about.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and jphilipg